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Monday, December 11, 2006

52 years later, integration faces new Supreme Court test

Tue Dec 5, 6:32 AM ET

Since the historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education began dismantling separate schooling for black and white children, the Supreme Court has spent a half-century painstakingly working out a fair way of making America's classrooms more racially diverse.

The results can be seen nearly everywhere you look. African-Americans head major companies. The two most recent secretaries of State are black. A vibrant, educated black middle class has sprung up, and colleges actively seek black students to enrich their campuses, expanding that middle class further.

So it was ominous Monday to hear Supreme Court justices sounding hostile to voluntary - and popular - desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville. If the justices rule them unconstitutional, the tenuous advance of equal opportunity could be undermined or even reversed.

As with anything involving race, the system of desegregation and affirmative action that has evolved under the court's watchful eye is controversial. Whites sometimes feel slighted, and it is whites who brought the Seattle and Louisville cases to court.

Both cities assigned students to schools in part to ensure that the schools are racially diverse, and parents whose children were temporarily denied admission to the schools they preferred sued, claiming racial bias.

Lower courts ruled against them, and just a year ago, the issue seemed settled. The court refused to hear a challenge to a desegregation plan in Lynn, Mass., that is similar to the Louisville plan.

But then Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who civil rights advocates fear is the crucial fifth vote to undo the two plans - and others in hundreds of school districts that follow similar guidelines to achieve diversity.

In 2003, O'Connor was the fifth vote in a pivotal 5-4 decision that said the University of Michigan Law School could consider race as a factor in admissions, as long as there was no explicit quota for admitting black applicants. The court noted that diversity promotes "cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of racial stereotypes" and gives students invaluable skills that "can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

That is the reason Louisville and Seattle tried to diversify their schools. Another reason was that students in overwhelming black or Hispanic schools consistently underperform.

The plans of both cities are complex, trying to balance family preferences against diversity and other non-racial considerations, but they are widely accepted in those communities, and they work.

But they appear far less popular at the court. Court watchers came away thinking the school diversity plans will be in trouble when the court rules early next year. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote now, said at one point that Seattle's plan seems to hinge in some cases "solely on skin color … it's like saying everybody can have a meal, but only (certain people) can get the dessert."

More telling was the answer to a question Kennedy asked about what has happened to Seattle schools since the school board suspended the plan after an adverse court ruling in 2001. Kennedy wondered whether the schools had integrated on their own.

The facts should sober him. In 2000, white enrollment at predominantly non-white Franklin High School was 25%; by 2005 it was down to 10%. Without the plan, Seattle's schools have gone backwards. The high court shouldn't lead a charge to ensure similar results around the nation.

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